I have tried a few versions of roasted fennel and generally find the sweet, tender result quite appealing. But I also find some of the chunks from the outer layers of the bulb stay tough and stringy, the oven not quite rendering them into the gentleness I am seeking. Until I met this fennel dish, meltingly soft, spiked with parmesan cheese and strewn with a crisp, salty topping of roasted prosciutto. If "crisp" and "salty" are emotional hotspots for you, your soul will sing with this rustic Italian dish from matriarch-chef Lidia Bastianich.
The first order of business is the one responsible for the moist tenderness I speak of. You boil your fennel chunks in salted water just until they can be easily pierced with the tip of a knife. After a good draining in a collander, you line the morsels in an oiled baking dish and sprinkle some grated Parmesan cheese, along with salt and pepper, over them. Over this goes slices of San Danielle prosciutto, following the lines of the vegetables. Roast for about 25 minutes and you will be rewarded with a hot, savoury casserole filled with sweet flavour and crisp bacon-like notes. Prosciutto undergoes a fabulous transformation in the oven, darkening, shrinking, and thus giving off a more concentrated hit of its essence.
What makes this dish work so well? The fennel is hot, sweet, juicy and tender. The prosciutto is dry, salty, crisp and meaty. Together they sing a happy song, the blissful conjoining of disparate elements creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is one of those kitchen mysteries, where flavours play off each other in a particularly harmonious manner.
Roasted Fennel and Prosciutto - adapted from www.lidiasitaly.com
2½ pounds fennel, trimmed and cut in wedges; 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil; 3 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced;
½ teaspoon salt; freshly ground pepper; 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated.
Bring about 4 litres of water to the boil in a large pot. Drop in the fennel wedges and cook them at a gentle boil for 10 to 15 minutes, just until you can pierce them easily with a sharp knife tip. Lift out the wedges and drain well.
Cut the prosciutto slices crosswise into strips, about 1/4-inch wide.
Set a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Coat the bottom of a 9 by 13 inch baking dish with a splash of olive oil. Lay the fennel wedges in one layer, filling the dish. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top. Lay the prosciutto in strips over the fennel, following the direction of the fennel. Finally, sprinkle over the grated cheese, covering the whole dish evenly. Bake the dish for 25 minutes or until the top is crusty and golden and the edges of the prosciutto and fennel are also colored and crisp.
Learn from Lidia!